Coventry - an unlikely home to prominent Syria activist

COVENTRY, England (Reuters) - With only a few hours sleep, a phone glued to his ear and another two ringing, the fast-talking director of arguably Syria’s most high-profile human rights group is a very busy man.

“Are there clashes? How did he die? Ah, he was shot,” said Rami Abdulrahman into a phone, the talk of gunfire and death incongruous with his two bedroom terraced home in Coventry, from where he runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

When he isn’t fielding calls from international media, Abdulrahman is a few minutes down the road at his clothes shop, which he runs with his wife.

Cited by virtually every major news outlet since an uprising against the iron rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March, the observatory has been a key source of news on the events in Syria.

Most foreign media have been banned from reporting in Syria.

“The calls come 24 hours a day, you’ve seen how many I’ve had in the last hour,” Abdulrahman, 40, told Reuters as he answered reporters’ calls, as well as calls from his network of sources in Syria.

“My job, my clothing business, my nerves have all been affected due to the pressure. Some nights I only get three hours sleep,” he said.

Surrounded by the trappings of family life -- a glitter-spangled card made by his young daughter, a monkey doll with “Best Dad” on its belly -- Abdulrahman sits with a laptop and phones and pieces together accounts of conflict and rights abuses before uploading news to the internet.


After three short spells in prison in Syria for pro-democracy activism, Abdulrahman came to Britain in 2000 fearing a longer, fourth jail term.

“I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes,” Abdulrahman said, referring to Bashar’s father and predecessor Hafez, also an autocrat.

What began nearly nine months ago as a peaceful protest movement against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, has slid closer to civil war as armed opposition groups organise and protect city districts.

According to the observatory’s latest figures, 3,441 civilians and 1,280 security forces have been killed. The United Nations says at least 4,000 people have died, with about a quarter of the dead from the security forces.

Video footage and witness accounts tell of Syrian security forces opening fire on unarmed protesters, mass arrests and the torture of people in prison, some to death.

Assad, who is under growing international pressure, including the threat of sanctions from the Arab League, on Wednesday denied ordering his troops to kill peaceful demonstrators.

With infiltration attempts by Syrian agents, misinformation from rival opposition groups, threats from Assad supporters and even pressure from pro-Assad members of his own family, Abdulrahman’s mission to document the violence is no easy task.

“We want accuracy and transparency in the news,” he said.

“We have had many infiltration attempts by the Syrian intelligence services, but we don’t put any news out until we are 100 percent certain about our source. If the source is new, we have to verify the information with other sources,” he added.

His sources, some cultivated over many years, risk their lives to investigate incidents and call him with information.

Six have already been killed, Abdulrahman said, but despite the danger the observatory’s network of contacts has expanded to more than 200 people from 54 since the uprising began, he said.


Abdulrahman, a Sunni Muslim, is acutely sensitive that his reports are seen as free from bias, given accusations against him of sectarianism, of being in the pay of foreign agents or of being swayed or infiltrated by Assad’s security services.

Sunnis are the majority in Syria, but the country has long been dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority sect.

“I have Alawites phoning and complaining, Sunnis phoning and complaining. I’m between two fires. But it shows I’m being neutral if both sides complain,” he said, insisting he accepts no funding and runs the observatory on a voluntary basis.

Members of Abdulrahman’s wife’s family have been arrested and beaten, he said, while he receives threatening text messages. Some of Abdulrahman’s family refuse to speak to him, supporting Assad out of what he said was fear or ignorance.

One of his brothers has pictures of news outlets, which have featured negative coverage of Assad, on his floor to walk on in a sign of disprespect, Abdulrahman said, laughing.

“No matter the huge pressure or the difficulties, we have democracy ahead of us.”

Reporting by Mohammed Abbas Editing by Maria Golovnina